By Matt Henslee
My journey into the ministry came at age 16 when I helped start a contemporary worship service at another church near my home church in Grand Prairie, Texas. For a variety of reasons, it was an eye-opening experience.
At 18, I moved out and began pursuing my Bachelor of Arts at Dallas Baptist University while serving as the pastor of students and worship at a church plant that met in a funeral home.
I lost count of how many times I heard, “People are just dying to come to church!”
At 20, I was midway through getting my bachelor’s degree and serving at an established church in my hometown when I met a young lady who’d soon become my wife. While I’d gone to a Christian college, I was still largely unprepared for the challenges that would follow.
By 22, I’d graduated, gotten married, and was in between churches in towns where there were far more cows than people. One church had a mostly absent pastor, and the other had a pastor whose illness required I take on a largely interim pastor role.
I Was Treading Water.
I faced counseling sessions well above my pay grade, church conflicts threatening to split the congregation, and struggled to know how to preach longer than five minutes or so. (Though, to be sure, I don’t think any members complained about the last one.)
In a sense, I had no idea what I was doing. Each day, I just kinda “winged it” and went with the flow. I had to trust God to work perhaps more in spite of me than through me.
So I enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension campus program in the hopes it’d give me some practical help in navigating day-to-day ministry.
Each day, it seemed I could put something I learned in class immediately into practice. I ended up managing to get through two semesters before the Lord called me away from the great republic of Texas to God’s country in Arkansas to be a student pastor.
I thought I’d taken my last seminary courses and was able to convince myself that was okay.
“I had a ministry degree,” after all, and simply believed I was done and could on without further education. However, the degree I had hardly prepared me for the day-to-day grind of ministry.
That church put me through the wringer, to be sure. The pastor was rarely around, I got chewed out for not being willing to take a young lady around town without my wife or another staff member, and we faced threats for aiming to racially integrate our youth group. For real, you read that right.
It was tough, but it was about to get tougher.
I accepted an opportunity, somewhat against my will, to return to bi-vocational ministry. I taught adults with special needs at a non-profit and became the worship pastor at a church about an hour away.
It was one of the most wonderful seasons of ministry, until the following spring. A tornado swept through the town and wiped out most of our church’s education buildings and sanctuary. We were a fairly large established church that suddenly had no place to meet on Sundays.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Fast-forwarding a bit, I found myself in my office as a full-time student and education pastor. A member stopped by the office with an offer I was reluctant to accept.
“You have Southwestern in your backyard,” she said. “Criswell is in your front yard. If you pick one, I’ll pay for the first two classes.”
“But, but, but,” I thought, “I have a degree and don’t have time for that. I’ve learned more in these churches than some professor could ever teach me. Plus, we’re about to be parents, and…”
All of these excuses spun through my prideful head like the tornado that swept through our previous church.
“What harm could two free classes do,” I thought? A course in student ministry? A class in evangelism? That’s all I’d need for a while. I’d be golden. But then I made it onto campus.
There were conversations in the cafeteria with professors. I was connecting with fellow ministers from all types of contexts. I enjoyed deep-dive discussions on some of the most practical facets (in this case) of student ministry and sharing the gospel.
I was hooked.
And I did two things as that semester continued: I kicked myself several times for not doing this sooner and registered for my next semester.
After completing the last few classes of a 90-something hour degree of a wide range of topics that were all immediately practical, adopting four daughters, and accepting the call to pastor a fantastic church in New Mexico, I walked across the stage as an M.Div. graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
I might’ve been older than most of my fellow Master’s graduates, but I sure was grateful. My only regret was quitting in the first place.
Would finishing my degree earlier have kept me from dealing with some of the ups and downs I shared previously? Of course not. But it would’ve helped me navigate them more faithfully.
Not only that, it would’ve given me far more people “in my corner” than I ever had.
“It’s the gold standard”
Sure, when someone says that about an M.Div., the defense mechanisms immediately turn on for some, but please know what I’m not saying.
I’m not saying you have to have an M.Div. to be a faithful or qualified pastor. Maybe you’ve been mentored by a seasoned pastor and been given the chances to hone your skills in the pulpit and the hospital room. Maybe you have a solid Bible degree and masters that have been immensely helpful in your ministry.
But, I’m willing to assert there are good reasons to pursue an advanced degree like the M.Div. for practical pastoral training and future ministry opportunities.
Is money tight? Many seminaries offer payment plans and financial aid. Are you too far from a seminary? No worries, many offer excellent online programs.
Full-time at your church and a ton of young kids in the home? Been there, done that—just take your time. Commit to a class or two a semester and chip away at the degree, bit by bit.
Tools for your toolbox
- I’m a better follower of Christ from classes like Spiritual Formation.
- I’m a better husband and father from classes like The Christian Home.
- I’m a better evangelist from classes like, well, Evangelism.
- I’m a better disciple-maker from classes on mentoring and disciple-making.
- I’m a better preacher from classes in biblical languages and expository preaching.
- I’m a better pastor from classes like Pastoral Ministry and Foundations for Christian Ministry.
- I’m a better theologian from Systematic Theology and several levels of classes on the Old and New Testament.
- I can navigate tricky topics in the pulpit and counseling from classes like the Bible and Moral Issues.
What’s more, I have the privilege of having a few professors that are still teaching me two years later as friends and mentors. I’ve also maintained close friendships with fellow pastors who I met in the trenches in class who continue to help me navigate difficult waters in ministry.
And all of the above are reasons I want more of the same—to continue sharpening those tools by pursuing my doctorate in May.
Totally worth it
Getting my M.Div was one of the most difficult things I’ve done. I was a full-time pastor, a father of four young daughters, and eight hours away from my school at times. However, it was worth it.
I can’t stress how helpful my degree has been in the day-to-day shepherding of the church to which God has called me and in “as you go” evangelism Jesus commands in the Great Commission.
You can be a qualified pastor without an M.Div., as I said before. In fact, I know many faithful Christians who barely finished high school and tons of ministers whose bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ministry gave them the same tools I received at SWBTS.
But in my context and for my ministry, the value in pursuing more refining and sharpening for ministry has been priceless.